Ornamental grasses are as versatile and beautiful as they are diverse. The diversity of size, form and habit make them suitable for a great variety of ornamental uses, both in landscapes and containers. Perennial grasses also provide a wide range of colors and textures and create interest in all seasons. “Now is the perfect time to plant perennial ornamental grasses in the landscape so that they can become established before the winter,” says Joannie Rocchi, Retail Perennial Manager at the Growing Place-Aurora, and 24-year staff member of the garden center. Grasses are easy care plants that tolerate a wide range of light and soil conditions. They respond and grow in response to temperature. There are two basic types of grasses: cool season and warm season.
Cool Season Grasses
Cool season grasses begin growing in early spring and hit their prime in early summer. Their plumes, officially called inflorescence, are produced in the cooler months. Joannie notes that one of the most popular cool season grasses is Calamagrostis ‘Karl Foerster’, also known as Feather Reed Grass because of its upright clumping habit and wheat-like plumes. It’s a great plant for screening eyesores like electrical boxes. Calamagrostis ‘Overdam’ is another cool season Feather Reed Grass which features variegated foliage, rosy purple seed heads borne in mid-summer, and an upright habit that makes it perfect for a landscape screen.
Warm Season Grasses
These grasses begin to grow when the temperatures rise in the spring. By mid-May the new leaves emerge and begin growing very quickly and by mid-summer plants begin to mature. They set seed in the summer and fall, then go dormant for the winter. There are a wide variety of available warm season grasses. In the American native genus Panicum, more commonly known as Switch Grass,‘Cheyenne Sky’ is currently displaying its blue-green foliage. ‘Cheyenne Sky’ forms a tight, vase-shaped mound only three feet tall. The bluish-green foliage turns wine red in early summer. It is topped with purple, airy panicles in the fall. “I just love Pennisetum ‘Red Head’,” say Joannie, “It’s burgundy bottlebrush plumes at the beginning of September are striking above graceful, arching rich green foliage.” Another favorite, Miscanthus ‘Strictus’, or Porcupine Grass, features creamy yellow bands horizontally across the green leaves of this upright grass. Copper colored plumes emerge in fall, turn to tan and then change to white and last through the winter.Sporobolis, also called Prairie Dropseed is another American prairie native that’s at home in the commercial or residential landscape. The variety ‘Tara’ is a more compact and upright than the species and is favored for the smaller garden or edge of the border and as a bonus their flowers smell like buttered popcorn. It’s important to note that both the Miscanthus and the Pennisetum family of grasses should be planted in the ground by mid-September. This will give them ample time to get established for the winter.
Grasses for Shade
Most grasses can tolerate partial shade but they grow more densely and vigorously in full sun—that is, six or more hours of direct sunlight. However, there are grass and grass textured plants that thrive in partially shaded areas, they include the varieties of the genera Acorus and Carex (These are actually sedges, not a grasses), many of which are North American Natives. Acorus ‘Ogon’, also known as Japanese Sweet Flag is notable for its green and yellow stripped leaves and graceful iris-like fans. Another native grass that thrives in full sun to full shade is Chasmanthium, also called Northern Sea Oats, with its flattened seeds that look like dangling fish scales.
Planting and Maintaining Perennial Ornamental Grasses
Grasses are tolerant of average soils, but adding organic soil amendments such as compost or leaf mold will help get your grasses off to a good start. According to Joannie, grasses really benefit from being well watered when planting them. She suggests filling the hole with water, placing the plant in the hole and watering thoroughly as you replace the backfill. Water frequently the first season to so plants develop good root systems. Once established, grasses will only need water during periods of drought.
Grasses do not need to be cut down before winter. In fact, they add interest to the winter landscape when left standing and the foliage helps to insulate the crown of the plant. In early spring before growth resumes, cut back the foliage to about 4-6 inches. Consider using your cut grasses as straw mulch around other plants.
Don’t let the grass grow under your feet. Now is the best time to plant perennial ornamental grasses. We have wide selection of grasses available at both The Growing Place locations in Aurora and Naperville.
Posted on 8/13/2014 at 9:00:00 PM